What is Isekai?

Understanding the history of a hugely popular genre

“If you die in the game, you die for real.” Ever hear that cliché before? The phrase originated in 2006’s Stay Alive, a movie where the characters die in real life if their avatars die in the horror video game that they’re playing. The film belongs to a genre of storytelling where characters get transported from their world to another, commonly referred to as “isekai” — a Japanese word literally meaning “parallel world.” This genre is mostly prevalent in anime and video games, but did you know that it actually has its roots in literature from around the 8th century?

“Now wait a minute” you might be saying to yourself, “I’ve watched and played .hack// (hell yeah), and I’m a tremendous fan of Log Horizon (weird, but ok), so I know all about isekai!” And sure, you probably do! The idea that someone’s ills can be cured by venturing into a game, book, or portal to live out a fantasy dream or solve a mystery is an extremely popular narrative that has been beaten to hell and back.

Isekai isn’t just about virtual worlds, though. The term “parallel world” can be applied to a large amount of media. Strictly speaking, Inuyasha is an isekai anime. Sliders is an isekai TV show. Hell, The Pagemaster is an isekai movie!

So how did the parallel world premise come about?

You probably haven’t thought about this movie for years, so, you’re welcome.

The Origins And Evolutions Of World-Hopping

The first recorded isekai story revolves around Urashima Taro, a fisherman who rescues a turtle and releases it. The turtle transforms into a woman and whisks Taro to a palace elsewhere, where they marry and live happily. Taro eventually chooses to return home only to discover that a large amount of time has passed and the world he knew is gone. So, not unlike taking a really long nap, I guess.

While not normally classified as “isekai”, a great many popular media series and franchises do fall into this category: Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, Escaflowne, Digimon, and frankly, too many titles to list. All you truly need to be included into this category is a character travelling through a portal (or a wardrobe, or a book, or even a dream) into another realm.

But there’s also a common set of tropes that defines the genre. The most prevalent of these is wish fulfillment the satisfaction of desire through an indirect medium. This often plays out through the transformation of a relative nobody into a hero in the new world they end up in.

Take Sword Art Online, for example. The main character, Kirito, is seemingly unstoppable from the get-go in the video game world. Wish fulfilled — the guy can defeat any opponent and has a harem of admirers trailing him at all times. Or Kingdom Hearts, a series almost exclusively about traveling to new worlds and solving problems because Sora is a chosen Keyblade wielder. Or Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time, a movie where a barbarian that can communicate with animals travels to Los Angeles and solves the problem of an evil warlord and a neutron bomb.

I honestly was just looking for an opportunity to post this image, but I’m also not wrong.

Another popular trope is the use of Role-Playing Game mechanics to explain hidden, unexplored, or downright broken abilities and powers. Characters utilizing fancy energy sword attacks, or activating skills that they wouldn’t normally have in their world. Use of magic, or severely advanced technology, teleportation, reincarnation, and more find their use in the isekai genre.

For example, let’s look at Marche from Final Fantasy Tactics: Advance. Not only does he come from a modern world modeled very closely after our own, the game takes great pains to demonstrate that his world is not magical in the slightest; his brother, Doned, uses a  wheelchair; his friends all have dire family problems and regularly get bullied, and he gets embarrassed at a snowball fight. Cue his transportation into the world of Ivalice, and he gains not only the knowledge of sword fighting, but also the capability to cast magic, fire arrows from bows, and more (for the sake of a job-change system). Marche, by the way, is approximately 13 years old.

That might be cheating a little bit, since FFT:A is actually a video game, so let’s use some other examples. The Beastmaster is really just a Barbarian with the Speak with Animals perk. Kagome is really just an Archer that sub-classed Priest. The Pagemaster is actually a Dungeon Master, which would rock because Christopher Lloyd would probably own bones at DM’ing.

Also Marche is the true villain of the game, don’t @ me

Hack The Planet(s)

But the newest and probably most popular form of isekai is the virtual world setting. Starting with .hack//SIGN, which featured a character who could not log out of a Massively Multiplayer Online game, many TV shows and games have used the “trapped in a game” trope as a narrative linchpin to their story. Sword Art Online, Log Horizon, Overlord and others utilize this plot point, typically focusing on the protagonist’s quest to return to the real world.

What makes MMOs so popular as the setting for isekai stories? Perhaps it’s the fact that a digital world is easier to mold and explain to the audience. Additionally, the dual nature of a virtual world and a real world lends itself to exploring themes of identity and reality. “Virtual Reality technology gone wrong” is a simple, effective way to get characters into another world, but there’s definitely an element of wish fulfilment on the part of authors and audiences who might secretly wish we could teleport ourselves into the world of Eorzea or Azeroth. It’d explain the high demand for this kind of content, which has become so prevalent that Japanese light novel publishers are banning new entries in the genre in submission contests.

There are notable attempts at subverting these tropes, however; shows like Konosuba and RE: Zero take the godmoded, can-do-no-wrong main character and toss them in the trash, replacing them with ineffectual individuals who putz around getting their clocks cleaned. Konosuba even has the characters living in poverty for several episodes, sleeping in stables and eating scraps. Overlord and Log Horizon have the main characters accepting their new realities and then attempting to rule over it or create a modern livable world, respectively.

Isekai as a genre is an inescapably popular storytelling device that has proliferated and expanded throughout media. Even as we reach what seems like the saturation point, the genre shows no signs of slowing down. Hopefully, newer isekai stories expand the concept beyond what has already been achieved, subverting many tropes or even inventing new angles to attack the premise from.

Also, bring back .hack// you cowards.